Woefully inaccurate and wholly misleading news reporting: Did it lead to an...

Woefully inaccurate and wholly misleading news reporting: Did it lead to an AG’s Reference?

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On 5 October 2015, the Swindon Advertiser covered the story of 20-year-old babysitter Jade Hatt. Ms Hatt had pleaded guilty to sexual activity with a child, contrary to s.9 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

In essence, what happened was Ms Hatt had ostensibly consensual sexual intercourse with the child she was babysitting, a boy aged 11. The judge imposed a suspended sentence order.

We covered the story on the blog at the time.

We thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare the news report with what was actually said. As you’ll see, the Swindon Advertiser are guilty of some seriously poor and inaccurate reporting.

The news story

The news story stated that Hatt and the victim had sexual intercourse, lasting 45 seconds and that the victim’s father said the boy regarded the incident as a “notch on his belt”. The report continued to state that the victim’s father said that Hatt was immature and that the judge relied upon to avoid imposing an immediate custodial sentence.

Purporting to quote the judge, the news report stated:

“Passing sentence Judge Tim Mousley QC said it was an exceptional case allowing him to step outside the rigours of the sentencing guidelines.

He said: “Having read everything before me, it was quite clear he was a mature 11-year-old and you were an immature 20-year-old so that narrows the arithmetic age gap between you.

I have read the comments of the boy’s father to the police where he doesn’t consider you a typical 20-year-old. I have also read what he has said about the effect on the victim.”

The final sentence refers to a statement by the victim’s father that the incident had not affected the victim.

The sentencing remarks

The sentencing remarks begin with a brief recital of the facts; there was sexual intercourse, H had climbed on top of the victim and straddled him, it lasted for 45 seconds, Hatt immediately desisted when asked to by the victim, she admitted the incident to the police very quickly.

The judge then states their respective ages (20 for Hatt, at the time of the offence, 11 for the victim) but notes that the victim was a “mature 11-year-old” and Hatt an “immature 20-year-old”.

As to the father’s statement about the effect upon the victim, the judge stated that although he had read the statement, “I am cautious about that, because one knows from experience that the impact of this type of thing may not be felt for many years.”

The judge continues to state that the offence is serious and that punishment is required. The remarks refer to the psychological report and the probation report, confirming that Hatt was immature and “very vulnerable” with the result being she did not always “judge situations properly”.

The judge then moves on to explain the sentencing guidelines (see p.45) and that the guidelines suggested a community order was the appropriate sentence (we presume this is a reference to Category 1B, which has a sentencing range of a high level community order to two years’ imprisonment). The judge then said that he would not impose a community order as he did not think that such a sentence was “sufficient” and instead, he’d pass a sentence that would make Hatt “think twice” if she got into a similar situation.

He then imposed a suspended sentence order of 6 months suspended for two years, with a supervision requirement. That sentence was discount from 9 months, as Hatt had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity.

He then explained the effect of the suspended sentence, imposed a sexual harm prevention order, and explained the sex offenders notification regime.

The differences

The news report failed to mention:

  1. that Hatt had a psychological assessment which evidenced her:
    1. immaturity,
    2. low IQ
    3. mental age below her chronological age
    4. vulnerability
  2. her good character
  3. the “difficulties in her life”

Notably, the report took the judge’s comment about the victim’s father’s statement as to the effect upon the victim completely out of context. The report stated:

“But after hearing the woman, now aged 21, was described as immature by the victim’s dad, a judge said he could avoid sending her to jail.”

In fact, the judge said he had read the statement but was sceptical about its contents as he knew from his professional experience that the effects of such offences can be delayed and do not necessarily present themselves immediately. The news report is therefore directly misleading on this point.

The entire news report gives the wrong impression about the case; the absence of the strong personal mitigation and evidence of her vastly reduced culpability

Comment

It appears the Swindon Advertiser report was the first report of the case and subsequently was used by other news organisations when they covered the case. This resulted in an uproar in the press and on social media. The NSPCC were contacted for a comment and – it appears – based on the wildly inaccurate news report criticised the judge:

The Western Daily Press reported:

“The NSPCC yesterday slammed the judge in the case for taking on board those comments – and the mitigating circumstances of Hatt’s immaturity and vulnerability – and said Judge Tim Mousley had ‘confirmed’ the wrongly-held belief that abuse of a boy by a woman is ‘less serious’ than abuse by a man of a girl.

The charity said Hatt had got off ‘extremely lightly’ and Judge Mousley’s comments sent a ‘deeply worrying signal’ to the public about child sex abuse.”

As a result of the media/public disquiet about the case, the case was referred to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. On 8 December 2015, the reference was dismissed and the suspended sentence upheld.

The reporting was irresponsible and misleading and directly contributed to the furore surrounding this case. In those circumstances, it is entirely possible that the reporting directly contributed to the decision to refer the case. Attorney General’s References costs thousands of pounds; while it is necessary that the Attorney General refers some cases which do not result in an increase in sentence (otherwise, he is not referring enough cases, surely?) one does wonder whether the pressure of the public and the NSPCC contributed to the decision to refer in this case, particularly in light of all the facts that justified the sentence imposed by judge Mousley.

News reports have the potential to be unreliable, but with a court reporter sat in court taking notes, as was the case in this instance, there is no excuse for missing key details that explained and justified the sentence. The Swindon Advertiser should consider what went wrong in this case and why.

6 COMMENTS

  1. One would hope that the AG would read the sentencing remarks before referring the case, and not rely on press reporting. Is it ever truly accurate? It hasn’t been in my personal experience.

    • Of course. My point was that it appears questionable whether or not the reporting (and consequent public interest/outrage) contributed, not that the AG based his decision on the contents of the news reports. Of course you will bear in mind the AG is a politician…

  2. I am really surprised at Lyndon Harris’s attitude to this case. His theory that the AG would not have referred this matter to the Court of Appeal had it not been for the newspaper report seems preposterous. In my opinion the mitigating factors omitted from the report seem to be very scant excuse for such a serious sexual assault on an eleven-year-old.

    I will be astonished if the Court of Appeal does not impose a substantial prison sentence.

      • You think the AG makes decisions solely on law, with no eye on the press or public opinion? It is this reason that led to the Home Secretary being stripped of his sentencing powers in relation to murder tariffs. He is a political figure; to expect there is no political consideration is unreal in my view.

        Also, to clarify, my view is that the newspaper reports could have contributed to the decision to make the reference, not that the AG would not have referred the case had it not been for the news reports. If you’re going to quote me, please do so accurately!

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